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Monday, September 28, 2015

“It’s a good worship song, but......”

Not a rant, but a concern. I heard Bryan And Katie Torwalt’s worship song “Holy Spirit, You Are Welcome Here,” that for the most part expresses the joy of being in the presence of God in worship. Yet, I have some issues with part of the text:

"Holy Spirit, You are welcome here, come flood this place and fill the atmosphere...."

I believe that it is worth the time to share some concerns that I believe warrants further study and underscores the need for our worship leaders to take to heart the analysis the text we put on the lips and hearts on those with whom we are leading.  Rather than a long discourse, I’ll will just list them:

1. God is the one who takes the initiative in worship, we don't show up and invite God to join us. – Remember that the bush was burning before Moses got there.

2. Since the Holy Spirit lives in us, we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, then it is not a matter of "welcoming the Holy Spirit", but acknowledging His presence in our lives. The song, I'm sure, is referencing Pentecost or when the church prayed and the place where they were staying was shaken. But in both accounts, they did not pray for those things, for they did not know they were going to happen as they did. Rather than praying for such an experience, we might should pray for the sensitivity to hear God's voice and the boldness to obey.

3. Praying for the experience is not what the early church did, they prayed for the boldness to share. I realize there are those that will disagree, and that's fine. I just think we are treading on thin ice doctrinally and we get much of our doctrine from what we sing.

This is a topic that needs unpacking:
There are four bases from which we make decisions: God’s Word, history and tradition, human intellect, and personal experience. Though all four are important, nothing should ever take precedence over God’s Word.  Throughout history the source for heresies can be traced to getting these out of balance.

For example, let’s say that we have a song that “the Lord gave me.” If we are not careful,  then we are saying that the text and music are directly from God, which places it on the same level as God’s Word, or to say it in another way, we have received further revelation from God. Such logic has led to many doctrinal heresies and problems in the Body of Christ. The issue here is that we forget that we have “clay feet” that we are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and share in their fallen nature.

We can be sure that any word we receive from God will not contradict what He has already said in His Word.  For this reason, then we must pass what we write through the filter of God’s Word: Is what is taught here consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture? Just because the Bible mentions something does not mean that it is teaching it: Scripture mentions that Judas hung himself, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we are to go and  do the same.

4. Seeking the experience first puts the cart before the horse. When Daddy comes in from a trip away and has a habit of bringing a surprise to his kids, it doesn’t take long before the kids begin to look forward to what their father is bringing more than himself.  We need to be cautious about measuring our worship based on feeling or the level of a given experience. Remember the admonition of Jesus: “Lord, didn’t we cast out demons in your name and perform all kinds of miracles?”  And he said to them, “Depart from me for I never knew you.” [Matt. 7:23] The test of our worship is our obedience response to God, not our feelings. We can have an experience outside of the realm of obedience.

5. Because many of the songs we sing come from artists, downloaded from the internet and then sung in our churches the theological filter is absent.  I have no doubt about the sincerity of the artist or composers, nor their good intentions, however, I imagine most are not trained in theology. We don’t sing intentions, we sing lyrics, regardless of how sincere.  In the days of the use of hymnals one could rely on the fact that a committee on theology had at least reviewed the text of the songs and made adjustments before publication. Now, however, the gates are down and we are dependent on the artists/composers and the theological depth of the worship leaders to serve as the gatekeepers for what is sung in churches.   It is worth remembering the Arian controversy, though he was sincere in what he believed [Jesus was not divine], and shared his teaching through sermon and catchy songs of the day. It became such a problem that congregational song was virtually abolished after the Council of Laodicea.

6. We must be careful that we begin to worship the idea of how we feel in worship, or worship the trappings of worship instead of the God whom we are worshiping.  Not to unlike the teenager that is “in love with the idea of love,” it is easy to become enthralled with the idea of worship. And for those leading worship, to become enamored with the feelings of leading worship, rather than focusing on the One to whom the worship is directed.

7. What can be done?  Fix the text as need be. Sometimes it can be done with just adjusting some of the text. Write the composer and share your concerns. If they listen to you fine, if not you just leave the song out or use your corrections for the local worship services. Remember, our people will remember more of what they sing than just hear, and if there is an emotional response, as is many times in a worship service, the memory of the text is actually stored in a deeper part of the brain. Paul pleaded with those to whom he wrote to guard themselves against false doctrines, so we should do no less and certainly not promote them through putting them in the hearts and minds of those to whom we serve.

Before the worship set is selected, as we are praying through what is to be sung for the service, we must check the text of what we are going to be using. If you are lacking in theological training, there are reputable institutions with online courses available– take advantage of them and prepare yourself. We are responsible to God for what we are teaching [James 3:1] and we must remember that we are teaching as we lead in worship [Col. 3:16].

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Revisiting Psalm 73

All we have to do is look around us and realize that our world and the society in which we live is far from God’s plan. Political leadership has tossed aside biblical standards and many in powerful positions scoff at the notion morality from God’s point of view. “Wrong” things can happen within the Body of Christ as well. As leaders, how are we to respond? How can one not become discouraged when “right” is called “wrong,” and “wrong” called “right?”  Fortunately, we are not the first to have to deal with such difficulties. God’s Word records a similar situation in Psalm 73 that can be of great help to us as we face the tragedy of our time.

Asaph begins with fact, with what he knows is true:
1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

Through an honest and transparent testimony of his own weaknesses, he begins to recount his inmost thoughts and feelings.   Notice that he identified his feelings and [even why he felt that way]. He confesses that he even envied the wicked because they seem to avoid all the difficulties he had to face:
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;  I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant  when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

And why he felt that way:
4 They have no struggles;  their bodies are healthy and strong. 5 They are free from common human burdens;  they are not plagued by human ills.  6 Therefore pride is their necklace;  they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity;  their evil imaginations have no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice;  with arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven,  and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them  and drink up waters in abundance. 11 They say, “How would God know?   Does the Most High know anything?” 12 This is what the wicked are like—   always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

The psalmist places his focus on his circumstances and the injustice around him and the result is discouragement and depression. Focusing on their “success” causes the psalmist to become discouraged and depressed. See what he says in the following two verses:

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,  and every morning brings new punishments.

When we take our eyes off of Christ and His will and direction for our lives, we can quickly become despondent as we see things seemingly out of control, injustice, suffering, etc.
– We can feel as if God has abandoned us and has left us to suffer under injustice and evil.
– What he believed didn’t coincide with the reality he was living.
One lesson that we might overlook is the important fact that the psalmist is transparent and shares these things with us, or we would have never known. His willingness to share his struggles becomes an important part of biblical instruction on how to deal with injustices in our own lives.

We don’t know what drove the psalmist to go to worship; but it was the turning point in his life. What we have is a testimony of the process.
15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

These things had been frustrations boiling up inside him, things he had not share publicly, but were tearing him apart from the inside, “till he enters the sanctuary of God.

Just as the prophet Isaiah saw himself as God sees him in Isaiah 6, “woe is me, for I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips and dwell among a people of unclean lips.”... so the psalmist begins to see God’s truth.

It is in worship that God reveals His nature and character to us, and we begin to see ourselves as we really are.  Thoughts and attitudes deep within us surface in the holy light of His presence. As we approach God in worship our perspectives change and he is able to think rightly again:

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;  you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,  completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

“Till I entered the sanctuary of God...”  When the psalmist refocused his attention on God and mediated on who God was and what He had done in the past, he began to understand their end.

Notice that the situation does not change: the wicked are still in power, they scoff at God, and they live as God doesn’t care or even exits.   What has changed is his focus and perspective.  God is in control and this is not the end of the story. He also knows the tragic end of those who scoff at God.   An understanding of how God has worked in the past reminds the psalmist that God has the final word and that sin is always punished. Judgement comes in God’s time, not ours.

Worship is our obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God. We cannot get into the presence of God without a glimpse of His nature, His character.  The difficulties of life become the lesson plans of God to reveal Himself to us.  When I am in need, I learn He is my supply; when grieving, He is my Comforter, confused, my Rock.  Let’s remind ourselves of the importance of pulling away each day, to enter the sanctuary of God and get to know Him better.

Seeking out God in mediation and worship had another result that instrumental in the psalmist dealing with his discouragement and despondency: he not only was able to see God’s truth about the wicked, but he realized that inwardly he was bitter. Look at verses 21-22:

When he began to look honestly at his feelings and how he was responding, he could accurately evaluate his actions: His focus on how unfair things were had led to discouragement and he had become bitter against God.   The more his focus was on their prosperity the more he lost his ability to think logically about the situation from God’s standpoint. Envy  replaces his sensitivity to God’s working in his life and robbed him of a grateful attitude for all of God’s blessings.

21 When my heart was grieved  and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;  I was a brute beast before you.

Bitterness robs us of the blessing that God wants to give through the discipline of the trial. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews had to say:
“9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;” {Heb. 12:9-15}

The psalmist comes to the point where he is sharing publicly about his feelings, his struggles, and the God’s truth in the midst of difficult situations.  It is out of that, that he comes to rely on God’s truth and comes to a powerful insight.

His time of worship clears his mind so that he can to begin to think clearly again and he can begin to state the reality of the situation in correct terms: God is in control. God is in control of my life. He will provide and protect. I can learn to trust Him and He will receive the glory from my responding rightly.

Until we can reorient our thinking though our focusing on God in worship, we will fail to see God’s truth in the situations in which we live, we can fail to see ourselves rightly, we can fall into bitterness. But praise God, it didn’t stop there. He did come to see God’s truth and his life was changed.

The truth is our lives can be changed, too.

Listen to the psalmist, fresh from his encounter with God, thoughts directed not by his outward circumstances, but by the truth of God:

23 Yet I am always with you;  you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel,  and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail,   but God is the strength of my heart  and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish;  you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

Verse 26 is key to the recovery of the psalmist: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  He is not in denial of his personal situation, nor does he glibly brush off his feelings. He simply sets his focus on the only one that can truly change the situation and make things right. Regardless of the outcome, his trust and confidence is in God. God is in control; God will bring justice, God is the strength of my heart and refuge forever. His heart response then was to share with others what God had done in his life.

Notice that he ends the psalm committed to share what God has done, but to really do that, he has to share where he has been, and his honesty and transparency become a bridge to our discouragements. As we become honest about our own brokenness, as we commit ourselves to openness before God in worship, we too, can become bridges to those who are hiding in their hurts, chained by secrets that they are too ashamed to share. We are all broken and God is remaking and remolding us into the image of His Son. We are broken people sharing with other broken people the God of love that can make us whole.

Let's recap:
The psalmist started with the right understanding, yet allowed his focus to shift to the negative circumstances around him. He became discouraged and depressed. He goes into the sanctuary to worship and God begins to redirect his focus back on God’s nature, power, and control. Out of his worship he begins to see the God’s truth about those who scoff at God, but even more, he begins to see himself in a new light, he sees his own bitterness.  What is as amazing as all this is that he was honest enough to write it down, become transparent and help us to become transparent too.

So now what?  Let’s look at some steps that we can follow based on Psalm 73 that can help us through difficult times:

What we can learn...
1. Realize that we are not above becoming failing, from becoming discouraged.
2. Many times we become discouraged when we spend more time focusing on the “prosperity of the wicked” or the problem, than the strength of the Savior.
3. We need to be honest about our thoughts and feelings before God.
4. Mediation on who God is and what He has done can help refocus our thoughts. Biblical worship is one of the best first steps toward the refocus.
5. As we worship God, we realize that He is in control and that we can trust Him.
6. We also realize that God has a righteous judgement and that all sin will be dealt with in a way that brings God glory.
7. As we worship, we will begin to see the sin in our own life and confess it before the Father.
9. We center our focus on the reality of Who God is and What He as done more than present circumstances.
10. We can begin to see God’s truth in the situation and we share what God has done in our lives.
11. As we become honest and transparent about our struggles we can help others as they are going through similar situations.